Kurt Vonnegut: Letters

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In an essay written by Kurt Anderson in Sunday’s NYT, he discusses his appreciation of the work of Kurt Vonnegut.  As a teenager, he discovered Vonnegut in “Cat’s Cradle.”  With the publication of “Slaughterhouse-Five,” Vonnegut became his cult hero.  Later in life in the 1980s, when Andersen was to be photographed by Jill Krementz, the soon-to-be Mrs. Vonnegut, he met him.  By that time Vonnegut was not longer loved by the critics.  Andersen admits that he hadn’t loved Vonnegut’s recent work, but was excited to meet this living legend.

The 1980s were a sad time for Vonnegut which is revealed in “Kurt Vonnegut: Letters” assembled and edited by Dan Wakefield.  The first extraordinary letter in this collection was written in 1945 just after Vonnegut was released as a prisoner of war.  The letter, Andersen says, was practically a sketch for what became “Slaughterhouse Five.”

Unlike a biography, these letters are “crafted artifacts.”  This is the author’s own “cranky, funny, acute voice chronicling his life in real time.”  The letters reveal his “lifelong yearning” for Hollywood, his continually feeling that he was on the verge of quitting writing, and the constant worry about his reputation.  Sadness and a middle-life attempt at suicide are revealed through these letters.  Reading a biography helps us to know a person through the eyes of the author.  Reading letters helps us to gain direct insight into a person as he shares with the letter reader trivial and profound events.

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